In aligning our broadcast advertising regulations with those of Europe, it may become necessary to allow the UK's terrestrial commercial channels - ITV1, Channel 4 and five - to carry more ads. Ofcom is reviewing the situation. On the face of it, this should be a modest and, indeed, rather welcome proposal.
Currently, those three channels are allowed an average of seven-and-a-half minutes of commercial content per hour, while their multi-channel competitors are allowed an average of nine minutes, calculated across a full day's output. In both cases, channels can pull forward advert airtime from other days for peak viewing times, so long as they do not exceed 12 minutes in an hour.
Many digital channels regularly run 12 minutes of ads at peak viewing times, and the terrestrial channels do so occasionally. But the latter have slightly less room to manoeuvre here because they are constrained to an average of no more than eight minutes per hour across peak periods.
It has to be acknowledged that peak time is cluttered. So no-one will notice, surely, if the terrestrial channels are given the same latitude as their multichannel rivals. There is, of course, the possibility that increase in supply will affect demand, ultimately lowering the price of terrestrial airtime. Advertisers would be taking a larger share of a smaller pot, so they might not be happy.
But that would be a small price to pay, because advertisers would get cheaper airtime and more choice. Well, perhaps, Bob Wootton, the director of media and advertising at ISBA, says. He argues that while, in the past, ISBA was a great crusader for more airtime for advertisers, its enthusiasm has diminished as the number of channels and, therefore, commercial inventory, have proliferated.
However, he adds: "More airtime is in advertisers' interests because the net effect should be lower prices. There is an argument to be made about the possible effects of clutter, but in custom and practice, the market never listens to such arguments."
Simon Bevan, the head of TV at Vizeum, disagrees. "We are already bombarded with so many messages, so (more commercial airtime) will bring more clutter to an already cluttered environment," he says. "It would devalue one of terrestrial television's selling points - the premium nature of its peak viewing periods. Although clients might get slightly cheaper airtime, you could argue they would lose more in terms of cut-through."
Bevan adds that the issue must be considered in light of the Contract Rights Renewal - the mechanism put in place to ameliorate the effects of ITV's dominance.
The MindShare investment director, Andy Zonfrillo, says there is a principle at stake. "All channels, whether they are multichannel or the so-called mainstream commercial channels, should have exactly the same amount of airtime to sell - it should be a level playing field," he says. "But whether that should be seven minutes or nine minutes an hour is something that would need further debate. Some channels not only run a lot of advertising, but also a lot of promotions, and when they do that, it produces a disjointed environment."
Five's executive director of sales, Mark White, agrees. He says he would have no objection to a level playing field so long as the harmonisation meant less airtime for multichannels instead of more airtime for the terrestrial ones.
"It is absolutely paramount that we think first and foremost about viewer enjoyment - and that would be considerably reduced if we saw more advertising on terrestrial TV," he explains. "Then there is the question of clutter from an advertising point of view - commercials will be much less effective in a cluttered environment. You have to remember that commercial impact is continuing to increase each year and, in real terms, the price of television advertising now is, in real terms, the same as it was in 1985."
YES - BOB WOOTTON, ISBA DIRECTOR OF MEDIA AND ADVERTISING
"On terrestrial and multi-channel, the peak-time programmes often have the equivalent of 12 minutes of ads an hour. I don't hear audiences or advertisers complaining about that."
NO - SIMON BEVAN, HEAD OF TV, VIZEUM
"This would be deflationary and damage TV's recovery. And Michael Grade (the ITV executive chairman) has said ITV should be all about what the viewer wants. In that context, more ads don't make sense."
MAYBE - ANDY ZONFRILLO, INVESTMENT DIRECTOR, MINDSHARE
"It would have to be done in the context of some agreement on the number of minutes of ads that a channel can run in each hour. The multi-channels have demonstrated the problems too many ads cause."
NO - MARK WHITE, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF SALES, FIVE
"It's in all our interests for TV to work, and I don't think anyone would want to see the sort of situation we have in the US, where the programme has hardly begun when there is another ad break - especially when price isn't that much of an issue these days."
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